Comment: UK needs to do more to support renewables

Tom Hopkinson

The renewable energy resources are there in the UK, but the Government needs to put its money where its mouth is, urges Tom Hopkinson.

There are claims from within the Renewable Energy industry and government sectors, that the UK is the innovator and potential leader in the race to become a renewable energy super power. This country certainly has the potential, but we’re not doing enough to keep ahead.

The Government must be bold and commit more finance and resources to ensure the green sector in this country is way ahead of the competition, a target we should and could be striving for. We have the natural resources and personnel to make this happen, but we need more support and commitment. For example, the recent Labour Government only committed £60 million to re-structure UK ports for offshore wind farm projects. This is not nearly enough. The new coalition government has increased this to £450 million which is more realistic, though we shall see how much comes through the net.

Thankfully some of the larger European based energy companies are beginning to recognise our potential, both for manufacturing and operations, though the Government could do even more to encourage greater interest, such as introducing tax incentives or grant packages.

The industry also needs more investment in education, awareness building and incentive schemes to ensure that we are attracting the right skills, and that the supply of these skills is sustainable. Though the transferable skills market is an important short term resource to fill the skills gap, the future lies in education and training schemes for school leavers – we need new apprenticeship schemes and training courses set up by energy companies as well as further education and vocational training institutions, whilst providing ‘bridge training’ schemes for cross skilling. We also need awareness building campaigns set up so workers with relevant transferable skills know of the opportunities, and have the incentives to act upon them.

For example, there are considerable opportunities for senior managers within the Oil and Gas sector who already have the necessary skill sets, but are unaware of the opportunities. There is a also a misconception that the Renewable Energy sector does not pay well, but we are seeing only a 5%-10% reduction in annual salaries for mid and high level managers compared to the O&G sector, a level that will reduce as the sector grows.

Our advice is act now, when the best jobs are available, and demand is outstripping supply. Leave it too long and key positions will be filled.

We already have many examples of managers as well as operational and engineering workers who have successfully made the transition to the Renewable Energy sector from other industries. Scott Sutherland, now a wind turbine manager at EDF Energy Renewables, applied his skills from the automotive industry to wind turbine engineering, maintenance and then management.

Similarly, the forces, IT, utilities and the semiconductor industries also provide a hotbed of skills. Alistair Taylor, head of service at REpower came from the semiconductor industry and Ron Donnelly, principal consultant with global engineering firm Mott MacDonald transferred from IT in the banking sector after completing a self funded MSc in Renewables at Loughborough University. Mott Macdonald advises banks on investments and lending for European wind projects.

As well as finding new talent for the sector, companies involved in recruitment such as Taylor Hopkinson are also working closely with employers, trade associations and the Government through the Energy and Utility Skills’ Renewable Energy Workforce Planning Group to ensure the workforce is better informed and incentivised, as well as developing the relevant skills for the task in hand. We need to see more industry collaboration.

So what lies ahead?

We believe that the Super Grid concept is the most viable way to make effective use of our Renewable Energy output. There needs to be a pooling of renewable energy resources, connected via a European Super Grid.

This will ensure a constant flow of energy - regional hubs produce power when conditions are favourable, whilst relying on others when they are not. For instance, when wind conditions in the UK are not producing sufficient power output, the grid can extract solar energy from Spain or southern France, and visa versa. Only through an integrated, homogenous network will we be able to maintain a constant flow of energy from renewable energy resources.

The Super Grid will also provide huge revenue potential and fiscal stimulus for the economy. We have the capacity to generate 7 times the power we need, giving us a massive opportunity to export energy, just as we did in the 1970’s when the North Sea oil industry was in its infancy. The Super Grid will provide the route to exporting our renewable energy abroad.

The problem we are facing is one of politics. It took nearly six years for the Scottish government to approve the Beauly to Denny line to distribute energy through Scotland. We can only imagine how long it will take for Governments across Europe to collaborate and create the network we need. And all the time sea levels are rising, and carbon reduction targets need to be met.

But we cannot afford to wait. We need strong leadership both centrally from Brussels and ‘regionally’ between European Governments to make this happen, but right now it’s a long way off.

Tom Hopkinson is managing director of Taylor Hopkinson, a dedicated renewable energy, clean technology and sustainability sector recruitment company head quartered in Scotland.

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